- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - More than 40 Republican legislators asked the Kansas Senate’s top leader Tuesday to reinstate the former chairwoman of the chamber’s health committee, while GOP lawmakers tried to dampen talk of a serious rift.

Seventeen of the Senate’s 32 Republicans signed a letter asking President Susan Wagle to reconsider her decision last week to remove fellow GOP Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Shawnee, as chairwoman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. The signers included Majority Leader Terry Bruce, of Nickerson - which signals a split among top Republicans that’s been evident in the Statehouse for months.

Twenty-six of the House’s 97 Republican members signed a separate but identical letter, led by Rep. Brett Hildabrand, of Shawnee, whose district overlaps with Pilcher-Cook’s. That letter is notable because it is unusual for one chamber’s lawmakers to publicly intervene in the internal workings of the other.

Pilcher-Cook was removed as committee chairwoman Friday, days after Pilcher-Cook’s attempt to force a Senate debate on a proposal to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage for poor and needy residents as encouraged by the federal health care overhaul. Both are critics of the federal law, but Wagle said the attempt was disrespectful to the chamber.

“Though we may not agree with every position she has taken on every issue, there is little doubt she is a person of conviction,” both letters said of Pilcher-Cook. “We respectfully ask you to reconsider your recent actions.”

Wagle, of Wichita, declined to comment immediately to The Associated Press. A secretary said Pilcher-Cook was in meetings and not available, and she did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Bruce said the senators’ letter resulted from concerns about Wagle’s move, particularly because it came at the end of the fifth week of the Legislature’s annual session. Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican who was appointed to replace Pilcher-Cook as leader of the health committee, signed the letter, too.

“I see it as a diplomatic way of bridging a rift between two people we hold in high esteem,” Bruce said.

Pilcher-Cook is among the Legislature’s most conservative members, a strong abortion opponent and an outspoken critic of the federal health care overhaul championed by Democratic President Barack Obama. Wagle also is a conservative.

Pilcher-Cook has said she was trying to force a debate on expanding Medicaid in hopes of killing the idea, and she accused Wagle of hiding personal support for “Obamacare expansion.”

Hildabrand called removing Pilcher-Cook as chairwoman “unfair treatment.”

Wagle has said Pilcher-Cook was flouting the chamber’s rules. And Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said those chamber’s rules are applied fairly, without political considerations.

King didn’t sign the senators’ letter and said he favors “anything” that prompts senators “to talk and work together.”

“We don’t need a document to do that,” he said.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org .

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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